Robotics startups Third Wave Automation and Outrider are taking on forklifts and yard trucks in a way that is advancing automation and zero-emission technology on both sides of the warehouse wall.
Participating in a fireside chat during FreightWaves’ Future of Logistics Real Estate Summit on Tuesday, Third Wave Automation CEO and co-founder Arshan Poursohi and Outrider founder and CEO Andrew Smith spoke of their common goal of automating freight and cargo movement inside and outside the warehouse without ignoring the importance of human interaction.
“We know the world is unpredictable, so we wanted to build a system that knows what it doesn’t know so that it can ask for help when it needs to,” said Poursohi, whose company is automating forklifts. “The great thing about modern machine learning is that when you ask for help you can get it, and the system continues to improve over time yet remains flexible. We acknowledge that there are going to be people involved, at least for a long time.”
Smith, who is transforming electric yard trucks into autonomous vehicles, is keeping humans in the loop as well.
“We can execute all the key tasks in the yard autonomously,” Smith said — including coupling tractors to trailers and precisely maneuvering between dock doors, parking spots and areas for over-the-road pickup — “and our goal is to have our system do as much of that work on a daily basis as humanly possible. But no robots are perfect, so you have to be able to address those issues. We’ve built in systems so that we know about problems before the dispatcher even knows about them from our remote operating system.”
The two companies also have in common a recent financial boost: Outrider in February emerged from two years of “stealth-mode” operation by announcing it had raised $53 million in funding, while Third Wave announced in June it had raised $15 million in Series A funding to scale its technology.
Based on his conversations with veteran operators, Poursohi revealed that the trend toward reliability and predictability is as strong in the warehouse sector as it is in other parts of the supply chain.
“There are certain baselines customers want, such as the number of pallets moved per hour and safety. But delivering the right pallet at the right time is important as opposed to getting it there at a certain speed.”
Smith said that one of things that excited him about Poursohi’s forklifts is that they’re all-electric.
“Getting people away from emissions is obviously a great goal, but there are also high levels of reliability that come with electric yard-truck platforms than there are with diesel truck platforms — you don’t have to adhere to emissions standards because you have no emissions. So we saw [electric trucks] as a much more efficient platform on which to layer automation. And that’s one step closer to having a fully zero-emission distribution yard for our shared customers.”
Poursohi and Smith also emphasized the importance of giving customers a product that is flexible according to their needs. “That way when specific requests come in we can deal with them quickly. You don’t want one component change to affect everything downhill,” Poursohi said. Smith added, “Modularity is so critically important because each warehouse, each distribution yard is going to look a little bit different.”
Looking at warehouse automation over the next five years, Poursohi said that predicted benefits and efficiencies of autonomous vehicle technology will roll out much more quickly in the warehouse sector, making forklift automation inside the warehouse doors much more cost-effective as well as safer.
Smith agreed. “Today what we’re talking about seems like crazy next-generation technology, but it’s my expectation that in a few years it would be crazy to be operating a warehouse or distribution yard that wasn’t autonomous, electrified and much safer than it is today.
“Looking forward, I think the really exciting thing is, everyone knows this automation is coming, and so it’s a question of who’s going to get the competitive advantage up front by deploying it early and quickly across their networks.”